1. Over the course of her life, Dinah has many different “mothers.” Discuss the differences or similarities in her relationships with each woman.
Dinah has many mothers over the course of her life, including Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, Bilhah, and Meryt. Dinah’s relationship with Leah dominates the first half of her life, while her relationship with Meryt dominates the second half. Leah acts as her teacher, showing Dinah the ways of their people while also instructing her in spinning and cooking. Though Dinah often runs to her aunts for attention and special treats, she seeks approval from Leah and views Leah as the image of the ideal woman. Dinah manages to learn a great deal from her other mothers—and thus they function primarily as teachers. Rachel teaches her to become a midwife and to find solace in her ability to be able to help women through childbirth. She shares Zilpah’s interest in spirituality and learns kindness and steadfastness from Bilhah. As she reaches adulthood alone in Egypt, Meryt becomes the primary mother figure in Dinah’s life. Meryt treats her as a highly regarded friend and also a partner in midwifery. They become as close as sisters over time, though Meryt is a generation older than Dinah. When she dies, Dinah mourns her as she does the loss of Leah and the others. Over the course of her life, the values and gifts of Dinah’s mothers continue to guide her, even as they are no longer with her.
2. Dinah’s point of view is often that of an observer. What effect does this have on the reader? On the narrative?
Dinah’s point of view—an observer privy to extremely intimate details—allows Dinah to present the private details of one family’s history and to weave between objective and subjective perspectives. Rather than using an unnamed third-person narrator, Diamant utilizes a figure immersed in the stories recounted in The Red Tent. Dinah has heard the history of how her mothers fell in love with the same man countless times and recounts her personalized version of the story. Dinah’s accounts are infused with her connection to the stories and emphasize the idea of a shared history transmitted orally from generation to generation. Dinah’s view as an observer gives her story a sense of timelessness, like a fable or a legend that has been told many times before and will be told many times in the future.
Though Dinah shares the most personal minutiae of her life, from childhood to adulthood, her distance from the story places her more in the role of storyteller, rather than protagonist. Her detached perspective lessens the impact of the gruesome events of the story. This detached point of view may also pertain to Dinah’s discussion in the prologue of offering her story to contemporary women who are interested in learning more about the lives of women in biblical times: Dinah’s detachment enables her to tell a specific, detailed story that occurred more than 2,000 years ago, while at the same time offering objective information about the civilization in which she lived and the role of women within it.
3. Discuss the marital dynamics of Jacob’s family. He has four wives; compare his relationship with each woman.
Jacob wisely cultivates very different relationships with each of his wives. His first wife, Leah, is his partner in running the camp. She manages the cooking and the children, making sure that the day-to-day work is always done. Leah is the quintessential mother, giving birth to eight children and breastfeeding several that do not belong to her. Jacob speaks to her almost as an equal, and he affords her the respect of a business partner. Rachel is his beautiful love, the woman he asked to marry the first time he met her. Though she cannot give him many children and is often away from camp serving as a midwife, he remains devoted to her and loves her deeply. He shares his most intimate thoughts with her. He does not have a conventionally marital relationship with Zilpah, although he does try in the beginning of their relationship to befriend her. She bears him twin sons, fulfilling her duty as wife, then asks not to return to his bed. Their relationship slowly settles into one of mutual respect. Bilhah and Jacob have a quiet, warm relationship, in which they spend many nights together and bear one son, Dan. Bilhah does not act like Leah as a consultant or partner, nor does she serve like Rachel as Jacob’s great love, but their relationship is a comfortable one until she is discovered with Reuben, her true love. In general, it is Rachel and Leah who quietly compete for Jacob’s attention, and he carefully splits his time between them.
1. Childbirth and childbearing are paramount in The Red Tent. Discuss the importance of childbearing in the female characters’ lives.
2. The novel follows Dinah from childhood to old age. How does she change and mature, and what lessons does she learn from life?
3. Female relationships are prevalent in The Red Tent. Discuss the importance of Inna, Werenro, and Meryt.
4. There is no historical account of whether Dinah ever had children. Diamant gives her a son. Why do you think she chose not to give Dinah a daughter?
5. While the red tent has been a custom of various peoples in the world, it was not used by Dinah’s people in her time. Why does Diamant make it a prominent feature of her account of Dinah’s life?